It is past time to come clean. I have an addiction problem. It is said that the best way to confront this is to admit it: No matter how hard I try, I cannot stop paying attention to fringe science.
Of course I could blame early childhood experiences. Back when I was a teen, about three decades ago, the free energy crowd was already quite active, “Tachyon energy” was then their favorite pseudo science to justify how their fantastic contraptions could work. One of the free energy bulletins that I read credited an electrical engineer who just happened to be a very distant relative of mine. So I managed to get in touch with him. He was indeed engaging in some far-fetched research, but it had nothing to do with free energy, and he had never heard of the people who misrepresented him (at the time, he was researching if common radar microwave radiation played any role in the forest die-off that was widely attributed to acid rain, and to that end built some strange test machinery).
This is a pattern that I’ve seen repeated many times since then. The approach generally seems to follow these steps:
- Find some far fetched fringe research.
- Claim some tremendous break-through and purport that just a little bit of additional research will result in a fantastic product.
- Based on this, collect investment money and then retire early after the R&D effort unfortunately doesn’t work out.
The latest fringe science to receive this treatment is the text book example for pathological science, cold fusion. It has since been rebranded LENR for Low Energy Nuclear Reaction (it also goes by some other acronyms, but this seems to be the most common one).
One story that fits this pattern perfectly is that of the marvellous E-Cat (short for Energy Catalyzer). It sprang on the scene about two years ago with a tantalizing, if not independently supervised, demonstration that was convincing enough to bamboozle two Swedish physics profs into proclaiming that no chemical energy source could have the necessary energy density to produce the observed heat (conversion of water to steam). Over time this generated some mainstream news stories, and a bunch of blogs and forums sprung up to follow this story. One such blog followed an interesting trajectory: Paul Story, the maintainer of ecatnews.com, started out quite optimistic on this device, even banned some critical voices from the comment section of his blog. But then he was approached by the Australian billionaire Dick Smith who offered a prize of $1 million to anyone who could prove a usable 1KW LENR device. Nobody came forward to claim the money, although several commercial entities claimed to have just such prototypes. But this changed the tone at ecatnews.com and made it one of the few uncensored places where adherents and sceptics of this field could discuss (sometimes raucously) without the fear of being censored.
But Paul closed shop after he came to the conclusion that the E-Cat is just a scam. And this is where my addiction problem comes in. His blog was where I got my daily LENR dose, and the other blogs that still cover this story are by far less open and critical to be an adequate substitute. So in order to manage my addiction I have created a sub-blog, called Wavewatching Fringe Edition. This new addition is by no means supposed to take away the focus of this main blog, but rather help to manage my fringe science problem, and possibly serve as a resource to warn people to double check before investing in fringe science projects.
Be warned though, fringe science is addictive, it offers stories taller and more imaginative than any soap opera. If you want to stay clean, stay clear of the fringe.
After losing a FB “Like” I feel like clarifying what I classify as “fringe science”. To have an objective criteria I lump everything into this category that doesn’t flow from efforts published in reputable peer reviewed journals (creating new journals in order to get published doesn’t qualify). Since everything performed by humans is far from infallible, peer review can miss interesting things, but the signal to noise ratio in the fringe category will be much higher.
Similar as with my “Lost Papers” section I will try to focus on aspects that maybe shouldn’t be overlooked. But there is also the additional aspect that I focused on above. Old Hilbert papers make a very bad basis to solicite investments funds, on the other hand many of the hotter fringe science topics virtually spawn their own industries (that usually go nowhere). If somebody researches these topics because they’ve been approached for investment funds then I hope the fringe section will paint a critical and realistic picture.
Of course it’ll be great if something as controversial as LENR could get to the point were repeatable, scalable experiments with a proper theoretical under-pinning brings it back to physics’ forefront. Some LENR proponents feverishly believe that this is already the case. Obviously I disagree, but I am not entirely ruling out that it could happen.